June 22, 2023
Mehdi Hasan is the self-styled wunderkind over at MSNBC. To be sure, even if true, it’s a distinction on the order of the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas. Like his doppelganger Ben Shapiro, Hasan suffers from the peculiar conceit that if you talk fast, it manifests that you are nimble witted. But our best and brightest—Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, or even William Buckley—have tended to speak in a restrained, even halting cadence, as if to convey that, if you are a responsible moral agent and take seriously the life of the mind, then before you articulate a thought, it should be subject to stringent, and ever-renewed, mental deliberation. Be that as it may, Hasan recently exhorted that “anti-vax nuts” such as Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (he is currently polling at about 20 percent) should be ignored not debated. (The Mehdi Hasan Show; June 18, 2023; for the record, RFK and his family have been vaccinated.) To wit, RFK’s allegations of a nexus between vaccines and medical conditions such as autism have been “overwhelmingly” debunked in “peer-reviewed” studies; “people are dying still” because the likes of RFK have been given a platform in the social media; while a debate between an “expert” and RFK wouldn’t do “anything except elevate the crank.” Hasan also seems of the opinion that once a proposition has been vetted on MSNBC and passed muster, any further debate would be superfluous. Alas, it’s child’s play to assemble a list of MSNBC “truths” that have fared rather poorly on close inspection.
The first thing to note is that Hasan is inconsistent. Even as peer-reviewed studies have “overwhelmingly” debunked climate-change denial, Hasan did debate M.I.T. scientist Richard Lindzen, who is a denier. (Hasan, incidentally, didn’t exactly redeem himself on this occasion.) On Hasan’s grounds, it’s also unclear why Richard Dawkins, who is an atheist, should have agreed to debate him on the merits of religion, as peer-reviewed studies have “overwhelmingly” debunked tenets of Hasan’s belief system such as Mohammed’s ascension to heaven mounted on Baraq. (Hasan affirmed this belief of his in the debate.) But what’s yet more disturbing is that this Oxford-educated woke celebrity has forgotten elementary precepts of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. That, in the search for truth, one must always be open to the possibility, however overwhelming the extant evidence might be in your favor, of being wrong; that, even as your interlocutor might be in the wrong, you still gain a livelier apprehension of your truth in the clash of opposed opinions; that, even as you might have the big picture right, your interlocutor might still have something of value to say that contributes to truth.
Hasan would no doubt retort that the stakes are too high—“people are dying still”—to sentimentally indulge Mill’s teachings. But this argument contradicts itself. If RFK is polling at 20 percent even as this “anti-vax nut” is propounding his “crank” opinions; if “people are dying still” because of anti-vax propaganda; if, as vaccine scientist Peter Hotez portentously observed on Mehdi’s program, “anti-vaccine disinformation now is a lethal force in the United States”—if all this be true, then the train has, so to speak, left the station. It’s too late to ignore the anti-vax menace as it has already been “elevated” in the public imagination. How then is one to combat it except by rationally confronting it? Indeed, if one is confident in their beliefs, it’s hard to figure why they wouldn’t want to engage in a public debate: it offers the golden opportunity to disabuse a broad swathe of the public from allegedly false beliefs and, concomitantly, to decisively discredit the bearer of spurious news. Isn’t that the purpose of the proverbial marketplace of ideas—to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth-teller from the charlatan? Hasan views it as self-evidently absurd that “a historian of World War 2 should debate a Holocaust denier.” But founder and dean of Holocaust Studies Raul Hilberg was rather more laid back on the subject: “If these people want to speak, let them,” Hilberg counseled. “It only leads those of us who do research to re-examine what we might have considered as obvious. And that’s useful.” If this “nut” and that “crank” didn’t agitate Hilberg, if he didn’t advocate silencing them—whereas Mehdi, on the contrary, hopes that RFK will be squeezed back into the woodwork, which is hard to distinguish from silencing him—that’s because Hilberg was confident in his conclusions based on his mastery of the source material. The impulse to suppress springs ultimately from dread of one’s inability to credibly respond. If the belief you harbor is true and you’ve done your homework, wouldn’t rejoining the objections of a naysayer then be a form of intellectual amusement, the mental equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel?
If he opposes debating RFK, it’s a tacit admission that, however vehemently he protests otherwise, Hasan dreads that RFK can’t be rebutted; it’s the fear that, if such a debate does “elevate” RFK, that’s because, far from being a “nut” and “crank,” he will be revealed a truth-teller and carry the day. Now I, for one, haven’t a clue whether, or how much, to credit RFK versus his critics; which is why I would welcome such a debate. What I am certain of is that the belief system of the woke universe occupied by Hasan’s ilk is paper thin; that beneath the smug certitudes of this ilk lurks a gaping insecurity; that the more this ilk espouses flagrant idiocy, the more willy-nilly doubt creeps into everything it espouses: so it shouldn’t surprise that reflexive resort is made to ad hominem slurs and the censor’s velvet fist in order to silence dissent.